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Classic provides Brassington a shot

Australian pitcher reinvented himself as a knuckleballer

Phil Brassington pitched in the Royals' system in the 90's. (Australian Baseball Federation)

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For Phil Brassington, the World Baseball Classic provides an opportunity to dream again.

He can close his eyes at night and let his mind ponder what it would be like to stare down Alex Rodriguez from 60 feet, six inches in a packed stadium. Brassington can see his knuckleball dancing past the bats of the best hitters in the world. He can reflect on the struggles, the roads not taken, the doors that closed when a talented right arm finally gave out on him because of numerous injuries. And now, to think he has the chance to reinvent himself as a baseball player on a world stage at age 36 ... it's a prospect that boggles the imagination of this affable Australian.

"A few months ago, I never could have imagined something like this could be an option," said Brassington, a former Kansas City Royals farmhand who is expected to be a starting pitcher for the Australians in the upcoming Classic. "The opportunity to compete against the best in the world and see what you've got is a great privilege, especially considering how I've gotten here."

Brassington was biding his time as a real estate salesman, amateur drummer and summer-league pitcher with a local club in Australia when the World Baseball Classic sent his life spinning in a new direction.

Throughout his injury-ravaged career, Brassington had always tinkered with the knuckleball. Word got around that he was throwing it pretty well in the just-for-fun summer leagues. Jon Deeble, the manager of the Australian team, got in touch with some diamond-in-the-rough questions.

"Can you throw?" Deeble asked.

"Well, I've been throwing a little, but not a whole lot," Brassington replied.

The pitcher and the manager decided to explore the matter further between the white lines.

"We sort of worked on a few things and, all of a sudden, here I am in this competition," Brassington said.

Brassington's trial sessions leading up to Australia's early-March flight to Florida for training camp and an exhibition game against the Boston Red Sox were encouraging. He started twice against Chinese Taipei, allowing one hit and no runs over five innings and three hits and one run over four innings.

Brassington came back against Bobby Valentine's Chiba Lotte Japanese team and surrendered just two hits and a run through four innings.

"I taught myself the knuckleball," Brassington said. "I had been messing with it since I was 16 or 17. I've always had it there sort of as a fun thing and I was allowed to throw it when I was with Kansas City in my sequence of pitches. I've really just developed it through trial and error. If I was going to stay in the game at my age, that had to be the key."

After riding the baseball roller coaster for more than a decade, Brassington is watching that roller coaster take an improbable ascension. In 1993, as a fifth-round draft pick of the Royals, he was a fastball/slider pitcher who seemed headed for a Major League career.

The talent was there, but the luck wasn't.

Brassington's pro career, which started after a year of college baseball at Lamar (Tx.) University, began on an ominous note when he experienced elbow soreness while pitching in Eugene, Ore. He wound up missing two seasons with a surgery spliced in. In 1997, he reported to Spring Training feeling good and thinking the arm ailments were a thing of the past. But then Brassington hurt his shoulder and was eventually released by the Royals.

"I came back to Australia sort of disillusioned by it all," Brassington said. "But I started playing here in a national league and my arm consistently got stronger."

By 1999, Brassington was back pitching for Albany in the independent Northern League. He was having his best year in 2001 when he blew out his rotator cuff halfway through the season.

"The doctors said it was pretty bad," Brassington said. "Basically, I tore my labrum in half. The doctors said they could put it back together, but there was a good chance I'd never pitch again. At 30-plus years, I kind of accepted that was it for me."

Well, not quite. After a couple of years off, Brassington got back on the mound with a trick pitch that could make him one of the more poignant stories of the World Baseball Classic.

"There was a time when I had some ability as a fastball/slider kind of guy," Brassington said. "But with injuries, I never had the chance to settle in and find out if I could thrive against the best hitters. I'm doing it a different way now, but the opportunity to compete against the elite is there and that means a lot to me."

Australia will compete out of Pool D and Brassington acknowledges that his team will be in an underdog role. But that only sets up the possibility of Australia sending some shock waves through the 16-team tournament field.

"We have a young and relatively inexperienced team," Brassington said. "But it's a great bunch of guys and a team with a lot of heart, which the Australians have been known for through international competitions of the past. We're just going to battle as hard as we can and see where that leaves us."

If the World Baseball Classic turns out to be Brassington's one shining moment on the big stage, so be it. But if he dazzles the competition, this comeback story may have more chapters.

There's a definite market for guys with a devastating knuckler.

"If you can get through a couple of these lineups and do really well, somebody will be watching," Brassington said. "That's in the back of my mind, for sure. It's an idea that keeps floating around in my head."

Robert Falkoff is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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